Why Are We Running Out of Time? A Business History Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
This blog accompanies the special issue of Business History Review on Business and the Environment.
The phrase “we are running out of time” has turned into an echo in the twenty-first century environmental debate. In 2018 the International Panel on Climate Change stated in their report that we have only about a decade to prevent a global warming increase of 1.5°C. Moving beyond 2°C threatens human civilization as we know it. This year, another report from the United Nations concluded that a million species on the planet are threatened by extinction, many within a decade. Why are we running out of time?
The answer to this question benefits from, or even requires, historical analysis. Today’s problems are the result of yesterday’s thinking, and the crisis we are facing today is the result of yesterday’s decisions and actions. In almost every case, historical knowledge can be useful in avoiding past mistakes or reinventing ideas that never really worked well in the past. The idea that aligning capitalism and business interest with environmental protection in a market economy basically based on unpriced externalities (the social costs of carbon dioxide emissions for example, which are not borne by the producer or user of a product that causes the cost) appears to be doomed to fail. It may be seen as the reason why fossil fuels still count for over the 80 percent of global primary energy use, and that carbon dioxide emissions are still going up, and not down.
This special issue of Business History Review seeks to promote new approaches to the role of business in both creating and addressing the mounting environmental crisis. It surveys the major contributions to the field of business and environmental history and provides a perspective on the notion of the Anthropocene. The research articles included in this special issue are by Charles Halvorson, Simone Müller, Adam Rome, and Marten Boon. There is also a collaborative contribution between myself, Shawn A. Cole, John Ehrenfeld, Andrew A. King and Auden Schendler. The authors identify and provide historical as well as contemporary analysis of the various mechanisms and conditions that have prevented critically needed turns in business operations and global markets, both past and present. In essence, all these articles address the consequences of the fast economic growth rates that parts of the world have experienced since 1945, and explores how governments and business have developed strategies to reduce their environmental impact, in both meaningful and less meaningful ways. The special issue also contains analysis of the power and impact of new intellectual ideas that promised business and society a costless (in monetary terms) greening, which appears to have distracted not only firms but also governments from undertaking adequate action since the 1980s.
The introductory essay presents and contextualizes this emerging domain of research which the articles represent. The ambition is to inspire new approaches in business history aimed at understanding, and contributing to solving, our environmental crisis. I hope the pathbreaking articles in this collection will inspire the new research so urgently needed on this subject. Solutions will not be easy. History shows clearly that the market economy as a whole has been primarily focused on creative ways to avoid the necessary shift to a different path from the one followed since the birth of modern capitalism three centuries ago.